It was something I discovered accidentally. You literally could walk up on elk. Hunting from a spike camp in southern Colorado, I arose early as usual and after a granola bar breakfast, started easing towards my hunting area. The rut was in play, but the woods were surprisingly absent of bugles despite plentiful elk sign. I assumed hunting pressure in the area played a role in keeping the vocal ambitions of bulls contained. The sun started streaking through the aspen stand I was slinking through and my mind raced to formulate a plan to kill my first bow bull. Looking down every so often for fresh sign as I walked, I looked up in surprise. I had wandered into a herd of grazing elk. Cows were less than 40 yards away and closing fast. Now what?
Dropping to one knee, I yanked an arrow from my quiver while scanning the herd for signs a bull was in tow. Like the cows before, he materialized moments later from the glowing aspens without a sound. He was 60 yards away. The distance was too far for my shooting abilities, and it appeared he was going to stay put as he wooed a young cow. I needed him inside 30 yards. Inexperience drove my next move. I slowly slid my call to my lips and shattered the stillness with a perfect bugle. Regrettably, the elk didn’t feel the same way and 10 seconds later the aspen stand was empty.
Even though I didn’t tag an elk on that hunt, it did provide me with the determination to walk up on an elk during my next meeting with the oversized deer. It was possible.
Using the Cover
As a student of whitetails, walking up on a paranoid buck was something I tried to avoid. I had much better luck waiting them out in a treestand or ground blind. Why are elk different? Well, their homeland and behavior combine to make still-hunting and aggressive stalks a viable option for bowhunters. Elk inhabit a medley of terrain, but generally retire to thick cover after sunrise to finish their grazing and rest. This provides refuge, but it also provides you cover to hide your invasion. I’ll often race to vocal elk under the cover of a dense pine canopy simply because they can’t see you coming.
Another factor working in your favor is the rut, the primary window for archery season. It’s a major distraction for bulls and cows alike. Toss an estrus cow into the mix and even mature bulls throw all common sense out the window as they contrive a way to get lucky. Bulls chasing, cows evading and lots of calling creates chaos.
Finally, elk are noisy. Although they can disappear in an instant, it often includes the pounding of hooves, the thumping of tree trunks and the clattering of rocks. This gives you cover as well. If you snap a branch, dislodge a rock or trip on a stump it’s likely to sound like just another elk to the king of the forest.
Last fall I teamed up with Scott and Angie Denny, owners of Table Mountain Outfitters (www.tablemountainoutfitters.com). We were bowhunting elk in southern Wyoming on the edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains and the elk were rutting. Scott and Angie strive to call a bull in close, but they aren’t opposed to aggressive assaults. I knew I was teamed up with the right hunters after hearing that. We tested the strategy halfway into the hunt on a vocal bull that was uncommitted.
Instead of walking away, Scott urged me ahead as he and Angie set up behind me to call. Rain began pouring from the Cowboy State sky as I pushed on. Taking each forward step cautiously, I finally caught sight of the bull tiptoeing my way in the rain. When his head went behind a tree, I’d take a big step forward. When he stopped to scan ahead, I remained motionless. Finally, I was within range of closing the deal. An unfortunate series of events played out over the next five minutes, causing me to flub a “sure thing.”
First, Scott saw me stop with the bull still approaching. When the bull’s head went behind a tree, he saw me ready my bow and thought I was going to shoot. So, he cow called. Everything worked great, except I came to full draw and the bull was screened by a tree. Staying at full draw for more than a minute and having the bull dash made me misjudge the distance when the bull stopped again. This, combined with the bull jumping the string, caused the arrow to fly harmlessly high. It was a long walk back to the truck in the rain, but I had another encounter proving aggressive strategies work.
Montana outfitter Mark Shutey operates Stockton Outfitters (www.stocktonoutfitters.com) in the southwest corner of the state. Like the Dennys, Shutey never turns a blind eye to a bull running to his call, but more often than not it’s aggressive tactics that lead to loin over the fire pit. He’s a convert and walks up on bulls whenever the opportunity presents itself.
“I use a bugle to identity where a bull is and determine his state of mind. If he’s not racing to the call, I pinpoint his position and rush in, sometimes running to get as close and I can to his boundary,” explains Shutey. “All animals, including you and me, have boundaries where we don’t want invaders stepping. I believe if you can get within 100 to 150 yards you are within a bull’s boundary. Invading that space can spark that bull to investigate. Most of the elk we kill are with hunters moving ahead of us, slowly walking toward the bull as we invade that boundary.”
In theory, walking up on a bull sounds easy, but Shutey provides instruction to most of his hunters simply because they come from a whitetail background and have a “don’t move” mentality.
“We see a lot of missed opportunities from whitetail guys,” explains Shutey. “It’s a tricky situation, and most of these hunters are in the mindset to freeze up when a bull is approaching 10 yards behind them. I instruct them to be a hunter and make the most of every opportunity with the best of their ability. If they don’t move when a bull approaches, they may never get a shot.”
Shutey’s strategy is the same as many outfitters. He prefers the shooter to be ahead of the caller to bring the bull past the shooter and keep the bull’s attention focused on finding the source of the call. But instead of setting a hunter up, Shutey directs his hunters to keep moving slowly toward the sound of the bull. He tells them to take five to seven steps before stopping to scope the surroundings. If they don’t see anything, they should keep moving forward. When they spot a bull, they need to set up or readjust for the shot.
Sometimes, the wind doesn’t allow a straight-ahead approach. In those cases Shutey tells the hunter to hook out wide, get the wind in their face and then move toward the bull. The whole time, Shutey keeps calling to the bull so it will give up its location.
In addition to relying on rut chaos as cover, Shutey outlines when his hunters should make bold moves, especially when eyeball to eyeball with a slobbering bull. He drills them to watch when a bull puts his head behind a tree and use that window to move. He also knows bulls often graze on the go, and when their head is down with their teeth grinding, it’s the perfect window for a bold forward move. A lone bull in an open meadow can occasionally be stalked when it begins grazing intently. It can’t see, and its grinding teeth cover any noise you might make.
“We also use decoys from time to time to capture a bull’s attention and relax paranoid bulls uncertain of coming closer,” Shutey says. “I’ve had bulls put their heads down and eat right alongside the decoys, giving the shooter another opportunity to move into a better position for the shot. As long as the wind is right, you have a lot of options to move closer to a bull.”
In a perfect world, a bull would be alone and eager to be shot, but often bulls are reluctant and guarded by girlfriends. It’s a test to walk within bow range of two eyes, much less 40 or more. Most of the time, Shutey acknowledges, herd bulls pressed with bugling or pestered with mew calls will simply retreat. So, his next best hope is to call in satellite bulls.
“It’s downright difficult to call a herd bull away from his cows, but larger herds usually have satellite bulls on their edges,” advises Shutey. “Generally, shooting opportunities come from one of the satellite bulls and that means you not only need to be looking ahead in case the herd bull returns with an aggressive response, but as you move forward watch your sides as well. Satellite bulls may appear out of nowhere and without a peep.”
Running Works Too
Being aggressive means you’ll bump an elk from time to time. Instead of stopping dead in your tracks at the telltale sounds of elk hooves pounding, Shutey thinks outside the box.
“It is our nature to freeze, stop moving, watch, look and listen as elk trot away. Generally elk won’t run far and eventually they slow and walk off while looking behind them. When we freeze we give ourselves away as hunters, but if you think about it the common behavior of another elk is to also run. So, in this scenario I instruct my hunters to run right after the elk. The other elk then think the animal that scared them is another elk and they stop dead in their tracks. It might just give you an opportunity to take a shot,” he says.
Does running at elk work? I don’t know, but toward the end of my hunt with Table Mountain Outfitters, I was offered a chance to redeem my rainy day mess-up. At midday, I spotted not one but two bedded bulls and we made a plan to stalk within bow range. On the way, Scott spied another napping bull, closer than the original two and by itself. The hunt was on.
Working to within 100 yards of where we believed the bull was bedded, Scott stayed back while Angie and I eased forward. Scott began calling, but nothing but the breeze blowing through the pines was audible. Realizing we were close, we pushed forward again. This time, we stumbled right into the napping bull now only 60 yards away. No shot was available since the bull was bedded in a depression, so I moved ahead again while Scott and Angie hung back to call.
The closeness of the calls spurred the bull to answer from his bed, and he unexpectedly stood up, not to charge in, but to feed. I still didn’t have a shot due to the depression hiding most of the bull’s body. Conveniently, the bull put his head behind a large tree trunk and a light bulb turned on in my head. Without hesitation, I stood up and walked right up the mountain with the wind in my face. Standing, I ranged the unaware bull still intensely grazing and blinded by the tree trunk. Thirty-four yards popped up on the display, and I planted the pin for a perfect, broadside shot. The bull tipped over less than 80 yards away.
More than 20 years had passed since I walked into that first herd of elk in Colorado. Over the years, the results have been positive and now I was walking up to one more bull. This time he wasn’t getting away.